New Republic of Ireland manager, Mick McCarthy, is the right man, at the right time, for the job, even if Stephen Kenny has progressive credentials, says Liam Mackey
Flash back to last week and reaction in certain quarters to the imminent appointment of Mick McCarthy as the new Republic of Ireland manager: a backwards step… regression not progression… an all too predictably conservative decision from the same old hapless powers-that-be when everyone can see that what is really needed is root and branch reform of a game in crisis and a brand new hand at the tiller of a national team whose confidence is shot to pieces at the end of a dreadful year.
Flash to 24 hours later and reaction in the same certain quarters to the news that Stephen Kenny will replace Mick McCarthy in August 2020: BUT THAT’S BONKERS! WHAT IF MICK WINS THE EUROS!?!
Say this much for the FAI: whether you judge them to have acted by accident or design, in self-interest or for the greater good, their novel plan for a managerial double-succession had the remarkably potent side-effect of sparking levels of wild optimism which would have been simply unthinkable only a few days earlier, around about the time the final whistle was blowing on yet another Irish football non-event in Aarhus and, as it turned out, also signalling the final act of Martin O’Neill’s reign as manager.
Once a certain kind of wishful thinking takes hold, it tends to be infectious. Ok, so maybe Mick wouldn’t actually end up bowing out as a Euros-winning manager but, at the very least, he’d definitely get to lead Ireland to the finals, right? And why? Because sure half of bloody Europe will be there, that’s why.
Which is true.
But, lest we forget, that also means that half won’t be.
And on the basis of what the Irish team have managed to deliver over the last 12 months, I can only envy the certainty of those who have suddenly decided that more or less the same players are now guaranteed to end up on the right side of the line separating the invited and excluded in 2020. And that’s even before tomorrow’s extravaganza in Dublin’s Convention Centre reveals the full extent of the challenge which will face our third seed team in the conventional route to the finals.
The back door play-off entry notwithstanding, it’s precisely because the task of qualifying for Euro 2020 will be hard, not easy, that I’m glad that Mick McCarthy rather than Stephen Kenny has been entrusted with achieving that goal.
And it’s not because I don’t think Stephen Kenny is capable of stepping in as senior manager right now. It’s because if Ireland didn’t make it through, I would fear that the price of failure would be far more costly for Kenny that it would be for McCarthy.
I don’t mean this to sound like a negative endorsement of the older man; it’s more about taking into account where they are in their respective managerial careers. There are very sound and entirely positive reasons for welcoming the return of Mick. A pragmatist who also encourages his teams to express themselves and play good football, McCarthy has the experience, personality and motivational qualities to get the best out of players who so comprehensively lost their way once the enigmatic O’Neill effect began to lose its power.
But given that nobody can pretend that the current Irish squad is one of the stronger ones on record, it will still require a hell of a job to turn their fortunes around against a tight deadline and at the first attempt.
If Mick McCarthy succeeds to the fullest, then being obliged to leave the job on the high of performing well at Euro 2020 would be, as he says himself, “a luxury problem”. But should he fall short then, desperately disappointing though that would be for him and us, I reckon he’s seasoned enough at this level to be able to take the blow and move on.
And, in any case, he’ll always have Ibaraki and a few other glorious memories of managing Ireland to sustain him into old age.
But what if Stephen Kenny took over now and, through no lack of effort and inspiration on his part, found that he just couldn’t get this team over the line at the first time of asking? That could mean that one of the most brilliant football minds ever to emerge from our domestic league might be prematurely dismissed as an Ireland manager and perhaps even lost to the international game forever. And that would definitely be too high a long-term price to pay for short-term failure, especially since his appointment to the U21 job is also being presented as a key step in a bid to connect and align the Irish national teams right across the board.
The problem with so much emphasis being placed by the FAI on the importance of avoiding what they seem to regard as unthinkable — Ireland missing out on their own party in 2020 — is that it permits virtually no wriggle room for what, in other circumstances, might simply be excused as a slow start in a new manager’s first qualifying campaign.
Or worse, a really bad start.
Just consider that long before they were being rightly hailed for their genius in guiding Northern Ireland and Wales to memorable performances at Euro 2016, Michael O’Neill and Chris Coleman had endured pretty torrid baptisms in their international management careers. O’Neill’s first two games in charge, against Norway and the Netherlands, saw his team concede nine goals and score none.
Coleman was the first Welsh manager in history to lose his first five games in a row, one of them being a 6-1 defeat to Serbia which, the manager later admitted, had prompted him to consider stepping down after just two games in the job.
Thankfully, O’Neill and Coleman were given time to turn things around — and they succeeded, gloriously. We can only fervently hope that — sooner and later — Mick McCarthy and Stephen Kenny can follow suit.